From being forced out of Vietnam for being ethnically Chinese, to sailing the South China Sea for a month in search of the shores of Hong Kong, to being sponsored by the United Methodist Church of Wilsonville and finally finding refuge in the United States, The Ly family has come a long way.
Today, exactly 40 years after coming to the U.S., the Ly family is celebrating their ten-year anniversary of opening the doors to their family distillery.
Vinn Distillery was founded with the simple intent of bringing baijiu to the U.S. market. The idea came from the late father, Phan Ly, who was tired of not seeing baijiu available at the local liquor store.
Having worked a life time, and with impending health problems, Ly was told by doctors that he could no longer work at the family restaurant, The Wok Inn. Never one to sit still, Phan started to experiment with the idea of distilling baijiu at home. After four years of experimenting and red tape cutting, the patriarch of the family gathered his household to tell them that he was finally ready to launch the distillery. The family sold the restaurant and transitioned into the distilling scene.
Ten years later, Vinn remains the only producer of baijiu in the United States. During that time, knowledge and desire for baijiu has grown in the west, and Vinn has been right there growing along side the trend.
Though the Ly's had been distilling traditional baijiu for generations, they understood how foreign a funky 56% ABV liquor served neat at room temperature was to the American palette.
Vinn's Flagship Baijiu is a demonstration of this understanding. Sitting at 40% ABV, this baijiu is a much smoother cousin of the traditional baijiu. Michelle Ly, daughter of Phan and Marketing Director of Vinn Distillery, said that because "baijiu was already so new, and so foreign to the U.S. palette, bringing the proof down made the drink more approachable to the average consumer."
Michelle is an expert at introducing first timers to the drink; from first exposing Oregon's head distillers to the beverage when Vinn first came onto the scene, to introducing curious newcomers every weekend, she is experienced in giving positive experiences of the libation.
Michelle tells me that when people come in for a tasting, they ask them to sip the drink. “Because when you shoot it, it’s super disorienting. It is meant to be sipped so that you can taste the full flavor of it.”
Trying the flagship, I could tell that it missed a lot of the characteristic burn on the way down, but it did retain the flavor of baijiu that I've come to love.
Understanding the American consumer, Vinn has made many products with an explicit eye towards the american affinity for cocktails.
Since baijiu first infiltrated the western world, bartenders and mixologists have utilized the unique flavor of lighter fragranced baijiu to create different twists on familiar cocktails.
When Vinn first started, the idea of making a cocktail was as strange and foregin to them as the drink was to the market. Afterall, baijiu was never intended to be put into a cocktail. However, after trying one of their baijiu's in a cocktail at an event, the Ly's shifted their perspective. Vinn now serves cocktails at their tasting room, they have cocktail recipes on their website for their products, and have put out fruit-infused rice based liqueurs.
Their openness to the cocktail world has served two important purposes. First, it helps introduce the unique flavors of the liquor to a market that is familiar with cocktails. Secondly, it introduces a whole new flavor profile for mixologists to play with.
Though Vinn is conscious of the market that they are in, they have not shied away from the traditional roots of baijiu.
In addition to educating people about the cultural significance of Baijiu and its history, a few years ago Vinn also launched their Family Reserve bottle. This is a more traditional version of baijiu and clocks in at a whopping 106 proof.
Today, people are ready to taste the 53% alcohol, with the 53% percent people start to like it more because they can taste more of the spirit. It’s been a slow transition to get them to drink what we drink in China.
This bottle is not recommended for use in cocktails; instead it is meant to be sipped and shot back by those who are ready to take the step towards enjoying baijiu traditionally. "It has been one of our most successful product launches," says Ly.
This is in part because consumers who grew up with baijiu are looking for a product that has the burn of the higher proof, as well as newcomers becoming more accustomed to the spirit. "We start them off with the flag ship," says Ly, "and then have them sip the Family Reserve. A lot of the time, they tell us that they actually prefer the higher proof version, because you get the fuller taste profile."
In today’s world of streamlined efficiency and mass-produced consistency, there are two schools of thought that generally push back on these market-optimized practices: Traditional artisans/practitioners and post-modern DIY'ers.
Vinn Distillery is an embodiment of both ideals. The methods that Vinn uses to create their products are traditional, small batch methods. They make their own Qu, cook their rice,and ferment and still their final product in small batches, all in their backyard.
Interestingly enough, this ethic matches a quintessentially Portland ethos of DIY invention, and unconventional artisanal products using locally sourced materials. Like many in the PNW, Vinn is not afraid to be unique. As the only producer of Baijiu in the United States, Vinn knows what it’s like to be in a brand new category.
Furthermore, because of the unique feature of Qu drawing in flavors from its environment, this traditional Chinese spirit actually has an unparalleled Oregon flavor. Vinn has also been committed to working with small farmers for sourcing their rice, and working with local farmers to source their berries and honey for their infused liqueurs.
This confluence of traditional and new age is not only representative of Vinn's wide range of products, but also of the family itself. Having lived in the United States for four decades, The Ly family themselves are assimilating with the culture while holding on to their family values. Growing in this bi-cultural environment allows them to take the best and leave the worst of both cultures, and their distillery's philosophy and products embody this unique cultural position.
After ten years, Vinn is now distributed all over the United States. They are one of the original members of Distillery Row, and continue to be involved with Oregon's distilling community.
As I went to interview them, they had just remodeled their tasting room for better seating and hanging out space. They hope to use the renovated space to continue to introduce baijiu to newcomers and push the boundaries of how the spirit can be enjoyed.
In their tasting room, you can try all of their different products. In the Vinn catalog, there is something for everyone, from baijiu veterans to complete newcomers. Vinn will also be hosting a 10-year Anniversary celebration on June 1st in their freshly renovated tasting room.